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Johnston Farms continues steady growth of Satsuma program

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Dennis Johnston and Kevin Johnston with some of the Johnston Farms orchards in the background. (Photo courtesy of Johnston Farms)

Johnston Farms in Edison, CA, which was founded in 1955, has been growing citrus since 1963 and Satsuma Mandarins since the mid-1970s, according to Dennis Johnston, a partner in the company.

“We’ve been pretty consistent” with regard to Navel acreage in recent years, he said. We pack about 1,200 acres of Navels every year.

Satsumas and other Mandarin varieties are a much smaller program for Johnston Farms than Navels in terms of acreage and volume, but they are a product category for which the company is well-known, according to Mr. Johnston.

In Satsumas, “every year we are increasing our supplies a little bit. We are now packing about 300,000 boxes of those a year” and have had “slow, sustained growth,” he said.

What makes the company’s Satsuma program exceptional is the flavor of the fruit, Mr. Johnston said. “The flavor of our Satsumas beats anything on the market at the time of year when Satsumas are available, which is the second week of November through the 15th of January.”

In addition to the Satsumas, “we do some different Mandarin varieties later in the year,” notably W. Murcotts, Tahoe Golds and Gold Nuggets. Those “fit into the back end of our Mandarin business, which generally doesn’t start until after the 15th of January” but typically continues through the end of March.

In an earlier interview, Mr. Johnston described the Tahoe Gold as being “very good to eat,” an easy peeler and “truly seedless.” It is also a large piece of fruit, nearly twice the size of a Murcott and “more like a Satsuma in size.”

The company has discontinued production on a similar variety called Shasta Gold. “We were pretty high” on that variety, he said. But even though its flavor is “outstanding,” it is a variety that “we have given up on now because we just never could make it work: number one, we couldn’t grow any tonnage; number two, what we did grow was too big and ugly and rough.” So after eight years of trying, “we gave up on that variety.”

Johnston Farms continues to grow red grapefruit. “We still have a volume of that,” but it primarily goes overseas, Mr. Johnston said. Because Florida and Texas “own” the domestic market during “the time of year we want to harvest” the California red grapefruit, “it is mostly for the export market. There isn’t much domestic volume of grapefruit out of California until June, and we want to start picking our [grapefruit] in December and January.”

Nonetheless, it has been “a fairly successful program,” he said. “There are a lot of guys that we do business with, for example in Australia,” who buy Navels from Johnston Farms and who “will take two or four pallets of grapefruit on a load of oranges.”

When the program began, “we were just filling a little niche for those guys over there. Now, it has turned into 75,000 to 80,000 boxes of grapefruit a year,” he said.

“We can do practically any package ... available,” Mr. Johnston said. For Navels, that includes “consumer packages of any size, cartons to any size,” and Euro cartons.

In Mandarins, “we still ship stem-and-leaf” in three-, four- and five-pound clamshells, as well as 12-pound boxes and half-bushel boxes that weigh about 22 to 23 pounds, he said.

“I know the clamshell business [in which Johnston Farms is not involved] has moved more to a bag,” he said. “But we still feel that the clamshell presents our Satsumas better at retail than a bag does.”

In addition to citrus, Johnston Farms is involved in growing, packing and shipping potatoes and Bell peppers. The company also grows carrots that are packed and marketed by other companies.

Harley Phillips, Joe Romani and Mr. Johnston’s nephew, Derek Vaughn, handle sales at Johnston Farms.